For Philadelphia brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, the cornerstones behind roots rock group Marah, a change of pace, scenery and attitude was definitely in the works. Having been signed by Steve Earle’s E-Squared label in 2000, the band released Kids in Philly, a blazing rock album that drew comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements at the same time. But after touring in support of the album, the band wanted a different direction. Following in Springsteen’s infamous footsteps, the group wrote, recorded and then scrapped two entire albums worth of material. The group wanted to make it interesting for themselves, not rehash their past glories. So, after parting company with two band mates, the brothers moved to Britain, hooked up with early Oasis producer Owen Morris, and are back with this collection of songs. And while few would argue that Marah has the cultural or social significance of Springsteen or Bob Dylan, you’re bound to hear a few diehard fans screaming “Judas” upon initial listens. Or “Marahsis!”
In a recent interview, Dave Bielanko said, “I’ve become a big fan of damn near disposable pop music”. This album sadly reflects a more than ample portion of said pop at certain points, but starts off with a delicious Oasis-circa-Definitely Maybe wall of noise and distortion on “Float Away”. Starting off with a beat resembling Britpop at its finest (or darkest), the song has the brothers making a snarling attempt at sounding like the Gallagher brothers. Another aspect of the song’s radio friendly potential is the addition of Bruce Springsteen on backing vocal as well as guitar. One would hardly recognize it as Marah, actually, but the subsequent song has the subtle handclaps that were integral to previous albums. “Soul” is another track with singles potential, but doesn’t have the same oomph one may expect, possibly due to its overproduced sound.
One of the problems with the album is the fact that it lacks the spark or aura of a band in a cramped studio playing together off the cuff. “Revolution” would definitely make a killer live showstopper, but when placed here it sounds like a summery, driving-in-the-car tune—instantly catchy, but sadly forgettable. Loops, samples and layering are placed over an otherwise grand rock song. Lyrically, each of the songs stock up well and haven’t lost a bit of their insight, wit or streetwise clarity. But the arrangements occasionally do a disservice to the words, as is the case with “People of the Underground”. One of the best tracks is “Crying on an Airplane”, with its soft pop/soul tempo in the vein of The Spice Girls or Kylie Minogue. The lyrics and the delivery are what make the song soar. Although repetitive, couplets like “I’ve been crying on an airplane / Near the heavens / In economy” cannot and should not be ignored.
Side two starts off with a great track, again an homage to Oasis, but with Marah’s dirty, urban footprints all over it. “Leaving” is probably one of the songs that evolved from the band’s “been there, done that” frustration. A catchy and meaty guitar hook is used with lyrics like “Sometimes we dream of newfound freedom / But we’re brothers for a reason”. Unfortunately, this good music is completely bastardized by a sugar-coated “Shame”, a track that has The Calling, Collective Soul and Sparklehorse drooling as you read. It resembles Jesus Jones if they were considered current, but does a disservice when Caroline Lost intros and outros the track with her teen pop vocals. “For All We Know We’re Dreaming” is marginally superior, despite its uninspired, airtight, anthem, pop-rock and repetitive, asinine chorus.
The last two tracks are high points, but for different reasons. “What 2 Bring”, despite its Prince-like spelling, is a straightforward rock song, again too polished, but with a certain undetermined catch to it. Although it should make for another great live song, it’s the first time on the album that the band sounds live. “Out In Style” has a late ‘80s hair rock hue to it, a la Poison or Def Leppard, but the lyrics are far more telling. “Ain’t life a terrible thing / When you’re singin’ what you don’t wanna sing” the band states, while closing the song and album off in a brief dance beat and faux ending. They want to go out in style, which they do to a certain extant.
Like many bands before them, Marah have decided to go a different route, welcoming whatever new fans they attract while not appeasing the every demand of its fanbase. After a few listens it should grow on some people, but initially the album lacks the spontaneity or buzz which saturated previous albums. This is an album that should work infinitely better live than it does on disc.